Archive for The Great Dictator

The Girl

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on April 15, 2023 by dcairns

Been a long time since we looked at MONSIEUR VERDOUX, eh? This must be that lull one gets into when nearing the end of a project — a reluctance to press on, a desire to linger awhile. Not that we’re even halfway through VERDOUX, but we are nearer the end than the beginning in terms of Special Mission Gentleman Chaplin.

Chaplin is unusual in that, like Woody Allen, he always feels the need to pair up with a beautiful girl in his pictures, but unlike Woody Allen he realised in middle age that he shouldn’t get too romantic with them. We first see this in MODERN TIMES, where the Chaplin-Goddard menage is noticably innocent. His impish sexuality only emerges when he goes mad. THE GREAT DICTATOR still contains a romance, but it’s very innocent. The naughtiness of the Tramp has vanished, and lust is transposed onto the figure of Hynkel, whose main attraction is towards an inflatable globe.

VERDOUX sees Chaplin settled with a wife and kid, and some other wives too, who are not figures of real romance for him, needless to say. And now he meets “the girl,” played with aloof alertness by Marilyn Nash, who was Mrs. Philip Yordan in real life, and met Chaplin through tennis. The critics weren’t particularly wowed by Nash, and her movie career did not last, but she had a nice quality, not necessarily identifiable as deliberate performance, though it could be. See also Ruthelma Stevens: it’s a thoughtful quality, and a watchful one.

But what is the role of “the girl” to be? Initially, she’s to be a guinea pig for Verdoux’s special woman-killing poison. Where his usual victims are chosen for their wealth, this one is chosen for her poverty and obscurity. Convention would dictate that Verdoux’s ruthlessness will soften into love, but he’s married to a nice lady whose role is to make his homicidal career seem a little more sympathetic, so he can’t very well cheat on her. (Mme Verdoux being disabled adds another element of sentiment, but also de-sexes Verdoux still more, though this is based on a false stereotype and for all we know M. and Mme Verdoux have a wildly thrilling conjugal life).

In fact, as we’ll see, the girl’s career parallels our anti-hero’s: she too will make a profit from murder, but in a more socially acceptable way, by shacking up with an arms dealer. Mass murder doesn’t trouble us: “numbers sanctify.”

Anyway, Verdoux decides not to kill the young pretty girl, which helps us retain some interest in him (can one speak of sympathy in this context?)

And now we really are nearer the end (for Verdoux and VERDOUX) than the beginning…

The Family Business

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , on March 4, 2023 by dcairns

Emerging from his victim’s bedroom, Verdoux launches into his money-counting routine, where Chaplin creates the effect of undercranking without any camera trickery at all. Verdoux’s history as a bank teller is brought to life before us, and the point is made that he’s continuing his financial career via alternate avenues.

Multitasking: Verdoux puts a call through to the stock exchange to invest his newly-stolen finances, and prepares breakfast. Oddly, he lights the gas range before turning it on. Either there’s something I don’t understand about 1940s gas cookers or there’s something Chaplin doesn’t understand about them. Information gratefully received.

The Lubitsch touch — we understand that Mme Floray is dead because Verdoux lays two places for breakfast, then notices his mistake, silently chastises himself for forgetfulness, and clears one away. Except we ALREADY understood this, so this is more like a very un-Lubitsch anxiety that everyone should understand. Or maybe it’s just a grim little joke — it’s certainly witty and dark.

Verdoux returns home to his real wife and child, accompanied by an outpouring of sentimental music so that we know he REALLY loves them. The kid, Peter, is played by one Allison Roddan, in their only IMDb-credited screen role. A typical movie sprog of the period, not a Chaplin offspring, the only odd thing being that he (?) is called Allison.

The authentic Mme. Verdoux is in a wheelchair, adding to the sentiment and also pushing us to find his homicidal activities, if not justifiable, at least something he was pressured into. The trouble is he’s so coldly efficient about it. I’m sure I’m not alone in finding the Verdoux family something of a bore — they have a useful function in terms of motivation, but they’re not exactly vivid, and no drama or comedy can be attempted in their presence, it seems. Verdoux may be devoted to their wellbeing but Chaplin can dispose of them quite swiftly, offscreen, later on.

Mona Verdoux is played decorously by Quebecois actor Mady Correll. Chaplin cast a few actors with French-sounding names, like Virginia Brissac (mentioned earlier this week for her connection to the Russ Columbo shooting) but I think this is chance. He was also happy to cast the very American Martha Raye, after all.

“I know it,” says Mme. Verdoux, a very Chaplin line: he says it himself while hanging from an aeroplane in THE GREAT DICTATOR. That may be a tiny sign of his limitations as a dialogue writer: his characters all talk like him.

We also learn that the Verdoux family are vegetarians, which is surely HIS idea. His contradictions — kind to animals, murderous to rich widows — are already established, and surely the irony connects Verdoux deliberately to Chaplin’s previous role, as Hitler.

Mme. V. reads the news headlines: DEPRESSION WORLDWIDE, UNEMPLOYMENT SPREADS THROUGH ALL NATIONS. Rather than being an event, the stockmarket crash seems, in this world, to be a continuous crisis — which makes it hard to figure out what time period this is meant to be. War hasn’t been mentioned yet.

“Peter, don’t pull the cat’s tail. You have a cruel streak in you, I don’t know where you get it.”

The Paris Exposition

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 2, 2023 by dcairns

MONSIEUR VERDOUX finally continued. A couple of Basil Expositions are strolling the boulevards, apparently with the sole purpose of filling in Verdoux’s backstory. This might be the kind of writing Billy Wilder had in mind when he called Chaplin the talker as “an eight-year-old child composing lyrics to Beethoven’s Ninth.” Or it maybe have been a nine-year-old for the Eighth. It IS a wee bit inelegant, and it’s neither dramatic nor comic: it’s just raw intel. We would have to learn this stuff at some point, but it should ideally be uncovered via a proper SCENE.

The prelude to this guff, however, showing Verdoux on the prowl for prey (a metaphorical prowl, he’s sitting down at a cafe) is very good. Light fluffy music, dark undercurrent. Close attention paid to the serving of coffee.

Naturally, Verdoux’s office is on the traditional Chaplin T-junction. He stops to feed a street cat, a play for sympathy which may have been borrowed from his old employee Von Sternberg’s UNDERWORLD (screenwriter Ben Hecht was appalled by the added cat business, claimed JVS, crediting himself with the populist instinct to make his gangster loveable — decide for yourselves how trustworthy that account is).

Verdoux keeps this sinister warehouse stuffed with his victims’ belongings — odd, since he seems to sell things in a hurry, monetising murder being his whole raison d’etre, and all he really needs is a telephone. It’s also odd that he plays the stock market, having lost his bank job in the crash. This keeps him on the go, however, which is good for the plot. Notified that he needs money fast, he must now embark on another murder, a grim highlight of the film.

First, Verdoux talks to himself a lot, which is unnecessary. Chaplin not only has a weakness for unadorned exposition, he’s anxious that we should understand him. Since he’s patterning himself somewhat on Lubitsch (who patterned himself somewhat on Chaplin), this is an error. See that your audience understands, but seem as if you don’t care either way. “An audience would rather be confused than bored,” says Mr. Schrader, very soundly.

Australian bit player Margaret Hoffman does well with the substantial role of Lydia Floray, Verdoux’s next wife/mark/victim (homophonic with Chaplin’s asst. dir., Robert Florey). So far we’ve had an unseen murderee, represented only by her house and her awful relatives, and therefore not inviting too much sympathy, and a woman who resists Verdoux’s charms and earns our respect. Now we’re getting much closer to actual murder, Chaplin makes the victim a grim scold — but allows a few little humanizing touches. He also allows Verdoux to see frightening. Whatever clumsiness we detect in the use of dialogue, however many dead scenes Chaplin serves up to prod the narrative along, the tonal balancing act is extremely nimble.

The IMDb has eliminated many of the weird conjoined filmographies, such as the credit ut gave Michael Powell for sound recording on a short film made years after his death, but Hoffman has a writer’s credit on a short about Lee Harvey Oswald, made in 2012. She died in 1968. Also, she wasn’t a writer.

The killing, played with moonlight and soft music (and a frisson of horror at the end), is brilliantly shot from the end of a hall NOT facing onto the bedchamber where the crime will be committed. Verdoux lingers at the threshold, working himself up into a romantic fervour before he kills. His silhouette in the wide shot slightly recalls the Tramp.

Of course, the miniature town seen from the window is very flat and unconvincing — the loss of Charles D. Hall as set designer is felt. Still, Costa-Gavras felt there was a purpose behind the cardboard backings of THE GREAT DICTATOR and it may be so here also. The direction is more than assured, otherwise: the discrete distance implies classic Hollywood romance, but of course maintaining a distance, staying outside the room, is also a strategy for dealing with violence (see THE PUBLIC ENEMY). The combination of the two starkly clashing modes is electrifying, and not in the slightest bit funny.

Maintaining the distance, the film calmly dissolves from night to morning — an elegant ellision that hints at ghastliness while showing us nothing but moonlight and sunshine.